►Quality Jobs Act passes through House, awaits Senate vote «Entered: 02/05/2009»
Despite concerns by a few Democrats in the Missouri House, a jobs package backed by Gov. Jay Nixon won overwhelming approval Thursday (Feb. 5).
The measure would remove a cap of $6 million on state spending under the Quality Jobs Act, which provides tax credits for expanding businesses and add several other tax breaks for business.
The bill would create an act allowing small business owners to retain Missouri withholding tax from the salary of any new jobs added to their payroll.
Legislative staff reported that it is unknown how much this will cost taxpayers in general revenue.
Missouri Representatives voted 141-19 in favor of the bill, which now now goes to the Senate.
But despite strong support for the bill, some House Democrats voiced frustration over having amendments that would have provided more oversight of tax credits and included women and minorities stricken from the legislation.
Hillsboro Democrat Belinda Harris said Wednesday, "It has these tax credits that have no limits. They've taken the caps off. This is not something that we need to do in the state of Missouri. We are having problems with too many tax credits."
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, defended the measure, saying, "When you compare us to Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, we don't compete even though we have stellar facilities ready to go."
►Carnahan to vie for U.S. Senate senate «Entered: 02/05/2009»
Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has become the leading Democratic contender for the state's soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Carnahan, via Web video Tuesday (Feb. 3), officially announced her intent to fill Sen. Kit Bond's position when he steps down after next year. Bond surprised many by telling the Missouri Legislature in January that he will not bid for a fifth consecutive term in 2010.
In her announcement Tuesday, Carnahan said, "Our country is facing tough economic times and threats to our security like never before. It's time we had elected leaders ready to stop the political bickering and start solving problems."
She went on to emphasize her role in aiding small businesses and cracking down "on big financial institutions" while serving as Secretary of State since 2005.
The Carnahan name is a prominent one in Missouri politics. Robin Carnahan's father, Mel, served two terms as governor before dying in a plane crash in October 2000. Her mother, Jean Carnahan, served in Mel Carnahan's stead in the U.S. Senate, before being replaced in a 2002 special election by Republican Jim Talent. Robin Carnahan's brother, Russ, currently represents Missouri's St. Louis 3rd District in the U.S. House.
If elected, Carnahan would join Missouri's other senator, Claire McCaskill, who is also a Democrat, in the nation's upper legislative chamber.
Speculation regarding a Republican opponent has thus far centered around 7th District U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, Talent, former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, although none have officially thrown their name into the hat for the vacant Senate seat.
►Missouri legislators await budget boost from federal stimulus «Entered: 02/05/2009»
Missouri lawmakers continued talks this week on how best to utilize potential federal stimulus funding that, if received, could ease the pain of budgetary shortfalls in the state.
A state Senate select committee charged with overseeing receipt of the funds met Wednesday (Feb. 5) to gather more information about the stimulus package and also debated how the federal dollars should be used.
According to officials with the National Conference of State Legislators, a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate could amount to well over $1 billion for education and transportation funding in Missouri as well as more than $700 million in fiscal year 2009 and 2010 from a temporary increase in Medicaid reimbursements.
The latter funds, based on the state's federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP), would be more discretionary in nature so long as they are not directed to a "rainy day fund or other protective fund" and so long as eligibility requirements for Missouri's Medicaid program are kept at or above the level they were at as of July 1, 2008, David Shreve, NCSL's Federal Affairs Counsel said.
Missouri senators Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, and Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, have sponsored legislation to create two funds within the state treasury -- one for federal budget stabilization dollars and one for federal stimulus funding.
A panel formed by Gov. Jay Nixon also met Wednesday to investigate fast and efficient expenditure of federal stimulus funds.
In Wednesday's Senate select committee hearing, state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, questioned whether FMAP money could be used to buy down bonded debt rather than funding ongoing programs -- like those funded through Missouri's Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act -- that the state might not be able to finance two years from now.
In an interview following Wednesday's meeting he questioned the intent of the stimulus package.
"This is not stimulus money," he said. "This is the biggest expansion of social programs that has ever been seen."
He used the example of his brother, who, he said, lost his job and had to rely on workers' compensation and credit card debt, to get by for six months. When his brother received a six-month settlement , Crowell said, he had a decision whether to go out and buy a new pickup or pay off the credit card debt.
"We (the state) are in the same decision matrix my little brother was in," Crowell said.
He voiced opposition to a proposal by the governor to expand Medicaid coverage to 62,000 uninsured Missourians and added that, while programs like Missouri's A+ Schools Program and a Prepare to Care initiative "may be great programs ... how are you going to pay for them?"
Like Crowell, Missouri Department of Transportation director Pete Rahn, who testified to the Senate committee Wednesday, expressed dissatisfaction that such a small percentage (just more than 3.5 percent of overall funding in the House version) of the stimulus plan would go toward road and bridge improvements.
He said that, while he is appreciative of the proposed federal stimulus, "the bill does not live up to (the) rhetoric" of making drastic infrastructure improvements.
Senate Democratic Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, encouraged Rahn to use a portion of the more than $600 million in expected stimulus funds for MoDOT to quickly improve Interstate 70.
As to other areas stimulus dollars could be spent, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, asked whether discretionary funds could be diverted to the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority.
Linda Luebbering, the governor's budget director, answered in the affirmative but said, in that case, funding would have to be cut from other areas to ensure a balanced budget.
All discussions of how to expend stimulus dollars are compounded by the fact that, as NCSL officials told Missouri senators Wednesday, 50 percent of federal funding would need to need to be obligated after 90 days of its receipt under the U.S. House's proposal and after 180 days under the U.S. Senate's plan.
In Missouri, the expected funds could spell quick relief for a state that faces a projected revenue shortfall of more than $250 million for fiscal year 2009, which ends June 30.
►A Senator proposes bill that to reduce college tuition «Entered: 02/02/2009»
Money from the 2007 sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA) assets would be redirected to a higher education tuition reduction fund under legislation filed in Missouri's Senate.
The measure, sponsored by the Senate Democratic Leader Victor Callahan implements the governor's order to halt use of MOHELA funds for building construction projects unless construction already has begun. The administration's budget office reports that slightly more than $100 million in MOHELA assets allocated for building construction remain unspent.
If approved, the $119 million remaining in MOHELA's funds not required to complete projects already started would go to a "Missouri Higher Education Tuition Reduction Fund."
Callahan announced his bill, Thursday, Jan. 29, the day after Gov. Jay Nixon's office suspended funds for several of the 31 capital improvement projects and placed the other projects' funds under review.
Callahan said, however, that his bill is not related to Nixon's administration's placing those projects on hold.
"This is just a concept I've actually had about MOHELA from the beginning of the MOHELA legislation," Callahan explained.
Budget Director Linda Luebbering said Callahan needs to evaluate the amount of money left in the Lewis and Clark fund and "make sure that whatever he's proposing is consistent with the amount of money that's actually available."
►Consumer rights advocates add their voice to nuclear discussion «Entered: 02/05/2009»
Members of a state Senate Energy Committee heard Tuesday (Feb. 3) from consumer rights advocates, a group whose arguments regarding a proposed nuclear power plant in Callaway County may be in danger of being drowned out by calls for job creation and increased energy efficiency.
At issue is Senate Bill 228, which, if passed, would modify a decades-old law barring utility companies from passing financing costs for the construction of "clean energy" and "low-carbon-producing" facilities on to consumers before the power plants are operational.
Opponents of the 1973 construction work in progress law say it is outdated and prevents companies like St. Louis-based AmerenUE from using consumer investment to make facilities, like Callaway II -- as the proposed electric plant is being called -- a reality.
State Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, who sponsored the current bill, says it would help to locate alternate forms of energy in Missouri, meet the state's growing energy needs and make Missouri an exporter of electricity to surrounding states.
Others have commented that, without gradual increases now, rates could dramatically spike if and when AmerenUE's plant is completed.
But opponents of Scott's bill -- like Peter Bradford, a professor of utility regulation and energy policy at the Vermont Law School -- told senators Tuesday that consumers would assume a greater risk than they should if the bill passes.
"It does not save money for customers," Bradford argued. "In fact, it may cost them."
Bob Quinn, the executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, added, "If you do CWIP (construction work in progress), that puts the burden even more on the low income rate payers.
"You can't borrow the money to build the plant from Wall Street so why not get the money from people this far from bankruptcy around the state of Missouri?"
Bradford evidenced statistics that almost half of modern U.S. power plant projects that have sought and received permits have not completed their construction due to a variety of reasons including, he said, drops in energy need and unexpected cost overruns. Due to this and other concerns brought up by AARP lobbyist John Coffman, the speakers said consumers should not have to pay for a project, from which they may never receive benefits.
For now, anti-construction work in progress legislation remains in committee. The issue is scheduled for further discussion Tuesday, Feb. 10.
But with AmerenUE representatives emphasizing Missouri's energy needs and union members also supporting the bill for job security reasons, it remains to be seen what role the arguments of consumer groups and others will play in that discussion.
►House Committee debates funding for statewide communications upgrade «Entered: 02/05/2009»
Public safety officials urged legislators Tuesday (Feb. 3) to find funding for a statewide radio communications system that they said could prevent the kind of problems that plagued emergency responders following the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Members of a House Appropriations committee on public safety and corrections reviewed a proposal that would establish a statewide system allowing police, fire and rescue personnel to directly communicate with each other across the state.
Law enforcement groups supporting the overhaul framed it as a safety issue for citizens and first responders.
"Without having a communication system that is statewide, it is much harder for first responders to reach one another," Greg Brown, board member of the Missouri Fire Education Commission, told committee members. "We need all our responders to be able to talk to each other all over Missouri."
On Jan. 20, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon put on hold an $81.7 million contract with Motorola for the upgrade that former Gov. Matt Blunt had authorized shortly before leaving office last month.
Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti told the Associated Press that the project was suspended in order to give the governor an opportunity to re-examine all new state contracts.
Currently, the Missouri State Highway Patrol's system does not allow real-time interoperability between responders statewide and across all radio frequencies. There are also separate systems for voice and data communication.
While nobody spoke against the need to upgrade the state system Tuesday, state Rep. Jamila Nasheed, D-St. Louis, questioned if such a major construction and telecommunications project was feasible in a down economy.
"I think we will agree that security is a major issue," she said. "I think the issue is when it comes to this state is the cost and the amount that it will cost to implement a service of that magnitude."
High-ranking Missouri Republicans, such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, have criticized Nixon's decision to halt funding for the project.
In his response to the governor's Jan. 27 State of the State address, Kinder cited the New York City Police Department's inability to communicate efficiently with the city's fire department during the terror attacks of 9-11.
"The citizens of this state should never have to question how equipped we are to keep our communities safe or how prepared we are to deal with an emergency," Kinder said. On Sept. 11, "firefighters lost their lives because they never heard the police warning that the building was beginning to crumble. At this very moment, we have the same communication problem in many parts of our state."
►Laptop use in Missouri Senate stalls «Entered: 02/03/2009»
After extended debate, the computer age was blocked from reaching the Missouri Senate for at least another year.
A resolution put forward by Republican Senate Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, would have allowed senators to bring laptops with them into the Senate chamber. But debate ended Monday (Feb. 2) without a call to vote.
At question was whether laptop use would allow lawmakers to conduct non-Senate business while in session.
State Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said that "there is a time and place for everything," and the Senate floor is not the place for laptop computers.
Arguments that senators often must conduct official Senate in their off-hours and that senators might be in direct contact with lobbyists were also expressed.
Nodler said "the integrity of debate itself" could be compromised.
"In other words, are the thoughts being expressed the thoughts of the senators elected by the people to come here to engage in a competition of ideas in honest, open debate? Or are they talking heads reading phrases fed to them by the lobbyists in the gallery or out in the hallway, who are interposing themselves into this process?" he said during debate.
Senate rules, however, do allow the use of other portable electronic devices such as Blackberries and, in the Missouri House, laptops are permitted.
State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, was one of several senators using his Blackberry for much of Monday's debate.